The Japanese film director Akira Kurosawa (1910-1998) was one of the greatest filmmakers of all time. He first came to international prominence with his eleventh film, Rashomon (1950), which received both the Golden Lion Award at the Venice Film Festival and a special Oscar as the most outstanding foreign language film released in the U.S. in 1951. Kurosawa worked steadily in the 1950s and early 1960s; from 1965 on, his output slowed to about one movie every five years. Kurosawa seemed to be drawn to stories that take place in historical times, and when thinking of a typical Kurosawa movie, one most often thinks of a story set in feudal Japan, like The Seven Samurai (1954). He did, however, from time to time make films with contemporary settings and in the early 1960s made a pair of dark and thematically challenging thrillers set in contemporary Japan. Both are visually and dramatically striking works that show Kurosawa successfully applying both the technique and the thematic preoccupations of his historical films to modern plots.
The Bad Sleep Well (1960) concerns a huge construction company that develops real estate projects on land controlled by municipal governments. The company is a hierarchical organization of interlocking fealties not unlike the feudal clans and their samurai of Kurosawa's historical epics. The company acquires the rights to develop the properties by bribing corrupt government officials to manipulate the bidding process in its favor. The movie opens with a wedding—a long, elaborately staged sequence in which the daughter of the second-in-command of the corporation gets married to her father's personal assistant.
Several unexpected and dramatic things happen during the wedding. First, the police delay the beginning of the ceremony when they arrive and arrest a prominent director of the company for bribery and corruption. Then the bride, dressed in a traditional kimono, collapses on the way to the altar, and it is revealed that she is actually lame. Her brother ends up carrying her in her arms the rest of the way as Mendelssohn's Wedding March plays in the background.
At the banquet after the ceremony, an executive of the company makes a bizarre toast to the newlyweds that is actually a statement of his innocence in the developing scandal. The drunken brother of the bride, in his toast, threatens to kill the groom if he ever does anything to cause harm to his sister. When the wedding cake is wheeled out on a trolley, a second mystery cake appears at the same time. This cake is a replica of a large office building constructed by the company, a building that became the object of a scandal when a public official implicated in bribery committed suicide by jumping from the building. The window he jumped from is indicated on the cake by a small black flag. All the while, a large group of reporters, drawn by the arrest and the notoriety of the company, lounge about in the background and act as a chorus, commenting on the action and supplying expository details. Careful viewers will be aware of how skillfully and unobtrusively Kurosawa arrays these large groups of players in the frame and moves back-and-forth and among them.
The part of the bridegroom, Nishi, is played by the great Toshiro Mifune. Gradually it is revealed that the strange goings-on at the wedding are part of an elaborate revenge plot by Nishi, who, unknown to the others, is actually the son of the unjustly accused official who jumped from the window. He has changed his name, insinuated himself into the corporation, and married his boss's daughter as part of this elaborate scheme. Critics have noted that The Bad Sleep Well is based on Hamlet, and although the picture is not a faithful transliteration the way Throne of Blood (1957) is of Macbeth, it clearly uses many elements of Hamlet. Nishi's bride is an innocent pawn much like Ophelia. Nishi even manages to gain control of one of the company executives who is believed to have killed himself and stages eerie "ghost" scenes for another executive in an effort to persecute and unnerve him. And as in Hamlet, Nishi's machinations end up backfiring on him and bring about his downfall.
Although presented as a mystery thriller, the movie actually examines serious ethical issues, in much the same way Kurosawa's samurai action movies do. In The Bad Sleep Well Kurosawa explores the distinction between justice and revenge. He asks the viewer to judge how far one should go to exact retribution, and if a wronged person is justified in harming the innocent (here Nishi's bride, who actually is in love with him) to punish the guilty (her father and his associates). He also shows the conflict Nishi feels between his use of others as cat's paws and his dawning recognition that they too are human beings with feelings. Kurosawa doesn't really answer the questions he poses so much as examine the effect on Nishi and others of his obsessive need to get revenge and to erase the shame he feels has befallen his family.
Kurosawa returned to a contemporary setting in High and Low (1963), based on a novel by Ed McBain. From the moment it begins, it is apparent that this movie is something special. Behind the credits we see a leisurely montage of scenes of a bleak, deserted industrial landscape—factories, rail yards, and docks—while spooky theremin-dominated music that seems to belong in a science fiction film plays. Like The Bad Sleep Well, this movie also opens with an extended tour de force sequence. The entire first hour of the movie takes place in two rooms of what appears to be a penthouse apartment overlooking a harbor and docks. The apartment belongs to Kingo Gondo (again played by Toshiro Mifune), a director of, and major stockholder in, a large company that manufactures shoes. The movie opens with a meeting in Gondo's apartment of several company directors soliciting his support in an effort to gain control of the company from its founder by joining Gondo's shares in the company with theirs, giving the group a controlling interest.
Gondo refuses to cooperate in the scheme, giving the others the impression that one reason is loyalty to "the old man." Already Kurosawa has introduced the element of the struggle for power within a closed organization not unlike the feudal power structures of his samurai movies, as well as the elements of loyalty and conspiracy, again not unlike the subjects of many of his historical films. The other reason Gondo refuses to go along with the scheme is that he despises the group's plans to lower the quality of the company's product in order to increase profits. In one dramatic scene he takes one of the shoddily made shoes they plan to produce and rips it to pieces with his bare hands to show how poorly made it is.
After the others leave, we find that Gondo himself is scheming against them and plans to use all his financial assets to purchase enough stock to give him control of the company. The reasons for this are complex. He began as a worker on the floor of the shoe factory, but when he married well used his wife's dowry to buy stock in the company and engineer his rise to executive status and financial success. Within just a few minutes, Kurosawa has established Gondo as an aggressive and competitive man ("You have to attack or get attacked," he tells his young son, who is playing cowboys and Indians with the chauffeur's son) who nonetheless genuinely cares about the quality of his product, a man motivated equally by ambition and principle.
It is these two things—ambition and principle—that collide when the movie takes two completely unexpected turns just a few minutes after it opens. As Gondo is happily contemplating his business plans, he receives a telephone call telling him that his young son has been kidnapped and demanding a huge ransom that will wipe out his fortune. For Gondo there is no question that he will pay the ransom. Gondo contacts the police, who come to the apartment to await the kidnapper's further instructions. Then the movie takes another unexpected turn when Gondo's son turns up and it becomes clear that the chauffeur's son has been kidnapped by mistake. Gondo is adamant that he will not pay the ransom. His wife, however, does not agree. "Success isn't worth losing your humanity," she had earlier warned him. As he waits for the telephone call from the kidnapper, the stubborn Gondo, frustrated by his helplessness, wrestles with his conscience: Is it worth ruining himself financially to save the life of the son of a servant?
During this section of the movie Kurosawa makes brilliant use of the widescreen format to convey the claustrophobic tension of the situation and Gondo's isolation. The action is confined to the main room of Gondo's house. The police team and Gondo, along with his wife and chauffeur, are often arrayed across the screen in tableau fashion. In these scenes Gondo is shown separated from the others—often positioned apart from them in the foreground or the background, isolated from them on one side of the screen, and facing away from them in the opposite direction.
When Gondo finally makes his decision, it is the ethical one: He will pay the ransom and suffer the financial consequences. At this point, about an hour in, the movie shifts gears and becomes less an exploration of ethical conundrums and more a straightforward police procedural. Yet even these more action-oriented sections are handled brilliantly, with equal emphasis on character, realism, narrative excitement, and visual panache, an exemplary version of a familiar genre. The police briefings are reminiscent of those in Fritz Lang's M. One sequence in which the police follow the kidnapper to Dope Alley, where Tokyo's heroin addicts congregate, is so dreamlike that it wouldn't seem out of place in a Buñuel or David Lynch film. It is also in this section of the movie that we finally see Gondo's residence from the exterior. It is not a penthouse apartment at all, but rather an ultra-modern house standing alone on a high, barren hill overlooking the harbor.
This actually turns out to be key in the kidnapper's explanation of his motivation for his crimes when he is finally captured. (In the meantime he has coldly murdered three people.) The police had speculated from the beginning that because of the exorbitant amount of ransom demanded, this was a crime motivated by personal hatred, not financial gain. The kidnapper has never even met Gondo, though. His motive is pure and simple envy. When Gondo later visits him in jail, he explains how every day he sat in his dismal hovel on the docks and looked up to the great man's house looming on the hill above (the high and low of the title?), until all of his dissatisfaction became obsessively focused on Gondo. If Throne of Blood is Kurosawa's version of Macbeth, and The Bad Sleep Well his version of Hamlet (as 1985's Ran would be his version of King Lear), then perhaps High and Low is his version of Othello: The wealthy, self-made man who married into society becomes the object of the irrational hatred of a person who sets out to destroy him.
This version of Othello, however, has a happier ending. As in most of Kurosawa's movies the villain, driven by overpowering obsessions, ends up badly. But he does not succeed in destroying the victim of his obsessive hatred. The experience causes Gondo to re-examine his values, and instead of pursuing his power grab, which he is once again able to do, he decides to sell his shares, start over again, and found his own shoe factory. In the future he will be free and independent in more ways than one.
In High and Low Kurosawa redirects the conventions of the thriller-police procedural genre to his own preoccupations. The purpose of the movie is not just to solve the mystery, to reveal and clarify the meaning of the mystifying things that have been happening. Its true purpose is less to thrill—although it does this quite well, both narratively and cinematically—than to detail the effects of events on the people involved. In this way, even in modern genre films like this one and The Bad Sleep Well, Kurosawa is working in the tradition of the great humanist filmmakers like Jean Renoir, John Ford, and François Truffaut. For Kurosawa, as for those directors, all of whom were also visual masters and compelling storytellers, it is ultimately the people—the internal and external forces that drive their actions and the results of those actions on themselves and others—that are the most important thing in the movie.